The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Velma is a take-charge woman, ever ready to adopt a new radical cause and careless of whom she offends. Committed to a number of civil rights projects, she has only recently become aware of environmental issues and seen an interrelatedness where previously she discerned none. She is convinced that Claybourne’s largest employer, Transchemical, drives workers to early deaths and that its pollution is part of a global conspiracy of the privileged to enrich themselves through exploitation of the wretched of the earth, largely people of color. Just before her attempted suicide, she has been questioned about the destruction of Transchemical’s computer records. Her disturbed state of mind makes her sketchy thoughts, including flashbacks to the recent past as well as to her childhood, often difficult to grasp, while her friends’ recollections of her range from impatient and envious to unqualifiedly admiring. In perhaps Minnie Ransom’s most difficult case, Velma is fighting for her life.

Minnie Ransom and Old Wife ought not to be considered separately but rather as a team. This old woman and her spirit mentor resemble a married couple whose impatience with each other cloaks deep affection. Although Minnie, a consummate herbalist, combines a variety of techniques in her healing, she relies mostly on commonsensical counseling combined with generous doses of love. Nothing about the low-key performance in the pleasant room suggests the bizarre. That these women, who probably represent body and soul—though which is which is often...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Velma Henry

Velma Henry, a committed civil rights activist and the center of the activist work in her community. When she is away from the Academy of the Seven Arts, a school run by her husband, he reflects that it takes seven people to replace Velma. She is also the talented pianist for The Seven Sisters, a performing arts group, and keeps the group’s political and spiritual factions from splitting to pieces. She becomes “uncentered” and falls to pieces herself, however, culminating in a failed suicide attempt.

Minnie Ransom

Minnie Ransom, a community healer, Earth Mother, and vehicle for spiritual forces. Minnie fought the acceptance of her spiritual gift when she was young, as Velma, who has a similar gift, does now. Minnie ate dirt and was called “batty, fixed, possessed, crossed,” but she has come to accept her spiritual powers and use them to heal others.

James “Obie” Henry

James “Obie” Henry, Velma’s husband, the head of the Academy of the Seven Arts and The Brotherhood. Frightened by the change in Velma, he has been unfaithful to her. Now he misses her in his life and in his work. He feels that he is losing control of his groups and of himself.

Sophie Heywood

Sophie Heywood, also called M’Dear, Velma’s godmother. Despairing of Velma being healed, she thinks of her dead husband, Daddy Dolphy, and her son Smitty, left paraplegic from an injury in a civil rights protest. She tries to become the medium through which Velma recenters herself in African goddess traditions.

Fred Holt

Fred Holt, a bus driver who takes The Seven Sisters to Claybourne for the festival and waits to take visiting medical people back to the city. He thinks of his dead friend, Porter; he also thinks about his first wife, Wanda, who left him because of her involvement with the Black Muslims, and of his present white wife, who does not understand him. On the way to Claybourne, he thinks about driving the bus off the road into the swamp ooze so that he can see Porter again.

B. Talifero “Doc” Serge

B. Talifero “Doc” Serge, the owner of the Southwest Community Infirmary. He has had many occupations, including those of pimp and numbers man.

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The characters in The Salt Eaters are not traditional, realistically depicted individuals. They occupy dimensions in time more than space and embody forces of nature and the supernatural.

Velma Henry has perhaps the most conventional background. A committed civil rights activist, she is the heart of the Academy of the Seven Arts, which is in turn the heart of minority education and protest in Claybourne. Having fought on a political and social level for years, she is exhausted and suicidal. Her personal history recapitulates the history of her time.

Velma’s husband James, nicknamed “Obie,” has been unfaithful to Velma; he is afraid of losing both her and control of his groups, the Academy and the more secret Brotherhood. Like most of the other characters, he is a thumbnail sketch. He illustrates the need of the masculine principle for the creative energy supplied by Velma. His nickname alludes to Obeah, a voodoo-like ritual practice. He exists in the novel to dance around and into the circle containing his wife and her healer, Minnie.

Minnie Ransom, about whom Bambara gives less traditionally novelistic biographical information, is an Earth mother, a community healer, and a vehicle for spiritual forces.

The more peripheral characters whose dance of life coheres around Minnie and Velma serve to recapitulate the African American historical experience in their personal lives: Velma’s godmother, for...

(The entire section is 533 words.)